"My Kind of Town," the fine new play by John Conroy with the titular nod to
This world-premiere drama at TimeLine Theatre is unlikely to be on any officially sanctioned tour by the
With "My Kind of Town," a long-in-the-works drama that gripped its audience on Saturday night, Conroy clearly wants to indict the city he just as clearly loves because it buried its head in the lakefront sand as activities more associated with terrorists or repressive governments transpired. You don't get the sense that Conroy particularly wants to further pillory police Cmdr.
The play feels like a cri de coeur that the city's longtime love of the nod and the wink in the direction of our culture of corruption — allowable, in many minds, just as a long as the streets are plowed, the gunshots remain a few blocks away and the flowers bloom — is morally untenable for a great metropolis. It's a short lakefront jog, Conroy points out here in truly arresting fashion, between taking care of one's extended family and aiding and abetting an outrage.
Early in the play, an African-American police officer named George Dawson (perhaps his character name is a nod to Ald. William L. Dawson, famous for doing the Machine's bidding on the South Side) lays out what is going on for a visitor from the state's attorney office, played with delicious elusiveness by Maggie Kettering. "This is Area 2," the officer says (he's played, in Nick Bowling's superbly acted production, by the great A.C. Smith). "When the midnight crew says there is a confession coming, you can take that to the bank."
Despite the moral force of this play, and the explosiveness of its content, the tone of "My Kind of Town" is strikingly careful and balanced. We do not see any of the torturing. The tale is told mostly in small scenes of people not quite managing to do the right thing.
Part of the story here, of course, is that it took a long time for anyone else to listen to what Conroy was writing about in an alternative newspaper. Despite the precision and detail of the reporting, the story was viewed as too local for a national airing, and, it was widely thought at the time, too laden with a particular anti-police agenda. Those accused — either in the building or many paygrades higher — mostly stonewalled Conroy and the Reader with silence, which proved an effective defense given the lack of other media outlets jumping on the story. Being largely ignored 22 years ago, it feels here, gave Conroy's writing greater humility and moral force. This is not the work of a journalist who found out some nasty things and brought down a government. This is the work of a journalist who found out some things and mostly was ignored.
Events here center on a young gangbanger and petty criminal named Otha Jeffries (played, in what should be a career-making performance, with blistering emotional intensity by Charles Gardner) who finds himself in Area 2 headquarters when the midnight crew wants answers — especially a police officer named Dan Breen (David Parkes), an otherwise nice guy who has been sucked into some kind of crippling vortex when he gets to work. Especially if you have read Conroy's articles, you will see shades of the real-life arrestees who claimed torture, such as
Any time you stick a play in a police station, you risk the familiar landscape of a TV-type procedural. Inevitably, some of these themes feel previously worn, especially by Keith Huff's play "A Steady Rain." The idea of loyalty trumping all, and defining silence, is not a new one. And there are times when both the play and production could use a more overtly theatrical feel, far away from the genre.
Still, the muted tone of the piece is wholly compelling, and Bowling's driving direction never messes around. Conroy is careful to point out many of the accusers of the police had themselves done bad things. Torture, he implies, was not necessarily inflicted on the otherwise innocent: Only Jeffries' mother, played by Ora Jones with deep intensity, always has stood by her boy. But the day a city thinks that torturing the maybe guilty offers indemnity is a day a city finds itself lost.
The actors, especially Monroe and Kettering, bring a remarkably quotidian tone to their gray, harried, worried characters. You easily can imagine these very ordinary Chicagoans just trying to get along — as most of us do, be we private citizens, city officials or big media outlets — without rocking the boat or being rocked by one and spilling out into the big lake. They're at once detestable and wholly understandable.
The play finishes very suddenly and ambivalently — too suddenly, to my mind — but it is clearly Conroy's way of saying the full story has not yet been heard or acted upon. There were shocks, but as yet no end.
When: Through July 29
Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes